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District conservationist is retiring

Russ Johnsrud

Russ Johnsrud arrived on Hubbard County turf with a band of high school friends from southwest Minnesota in 1970, setting sail on Eagle and Island lakes in search of walleye and northern.

"I'd like to live around here," he told his fellow Vo-Ag students.

"Eight years later, I was offered the position here," the district conservationist recalled.

When the new year rolls in, Johnsrud will once again be gone fishin', heading up to Lake of the Woods for a few celebratory days of angling with his son.

After 37 years with the USDA Soil Conservation Service, now Natural Resources Conservation Service, Johnsrud is retiring.

"Grandpa will be doing some babysitting," he said.

But his role as an education volunteer within the community will continue, he said of leading youth firearms safety courses, Earth Team and other activities.

"I've enjoyed the job tremendously. But you get to that point when it's time," the 57-year-old reflected. "It's time for me to go. Everything was aligned for this year."

Holding degrees in agronomy and wildlife management "with lots of minors," Johnsrud began his career in 1972 as a technician with the Clay County Soil and Water Conservation District.

In 1974 the SCS hired him as a soil conservation technician. He left Clay County in 1977 to work in Carlton County as a soil conservationist.

In 1978, his hoped-for prognostication became reality; he moved to Hubbard County to be the current and longest serving district conservationist.

"I'm the second one," he said. The first to hold the title left after a year to attend law school.

Initially, Johnsud worked primarily with dairy and hog farmers. But his role evolved to include all resources - lakeshore, crop and forest.

"Everything has changed so much," he said, citing the changing face of Main Avenue, technology and "vast areas of untouched ground" where houses now stand.

The north end of the county - Farden, Helga, Fern and Rockwood townships - "went from small farms to houses."

He recalls when farmers considered lakes to be "wasteland," because the water bodies diminished the size of the growing area.

He's seen the price of aspen range from $1 to $3 a cord when he arrived in '78, up to $100 and now $20 to $25. "I saw Potlatch come and go."

But Hubbard Prairie has remained fairly unchanged, he said, with the exception of irrigators.

The NRCS programs have evolved from "single practice" to "whole picture" initiatives for farms and forests, "looking at the overall system."

He oversees the Environmental Quality Incentives, Wildlife Habitat Incentives, and Conservation Stewardship programs.

Johnsrud assists landowners with erosion issues; forest property holders come to understand plant diversity and wildlife habitat. Cropland owners gain assistance with residue/nutrient management and irrigation issues. And livestock operators can gain grazing and nutrient management advice.

"I always arrive by invitation," he explained. "And we never turn anyone away."

As administrator of federal programs, Johnsrud works with state, county and township officials and all divisions of the DNR.

His office, he explained, does not focus on enforcement or regulation but providing services. "It's a clearinghouse. If I don't know the answer, I find the person who does."

And to this end, he laments the loss of personnel in the local Extension office. "It's a travesty," he said. "We worked as a team.

"I've met thousands of people. And everyone has something to contribute, unique and interesting," he said.

He values time spent with "native" Hubbard County residents, families who for several generations have called this turf home. "After 31 years, I'm almost native."

Education has been a focus of his career. Elementary school kids have been introduced to the intricacies of soil, habitat and wildlife. High school students have received tutelage for the Envirothon and college students have come to understand soil characteristics and properties.

An open house farewell will be held for Johnsrud from 1 to 4 p.m. Friday, Dec. 18 at the USDA Service Center.

"It's been interesting. I will enjoy it up to the last day."